A beginner\’s guide to making your kitchen green(er)


I\’ve read my fair share of articles on how to \”go green\”. In my bathroom, in my kitchen, in my car and probably in my closet. The only problem with these articles are that those of us who take the first step of reading the article with the interest of going green, are probably not going to actually do the ten steps to going green in whatever room of our houses. Why? Because I sure as heck am not going to go to the store and buy a brand new energy-efficient dishwasher, or install a water softener, or spend 15 dollars on a bottle of eco-friendly laundry detergent.

This article is for those of us who are taking that first step and reading about going green in the kitchen, and will walk away with some ideas that won\’t break the bank, will make your kitchen unique and cute, and make you feel like a green goddess. Seriously.

I present to you: A Beginner\’s Guide to Making Your Kitchen Green(er). I considered titling this \’Kitchening Green\’, but I don\’t think my editor would appreciate my fondness for making up wacky words. And there\’s only five because ten\’s just too much for those of us starting off.

Easy Step #1: Re-use your plastics


I know, you\’re probably like, well duh! But I\’m not talking about taking those plastic bags from the grocery store and saving them in the pantry, then using them for picking up errant dog poop or stuffing them in cute little straw baskets for smaller trashcans in the house (which is what I use them for, thanks to my mother). I\’m talking about re-using ALL your plastics. Here we\’re talking about for food storage.

How much plastic do we really use in a day? A lot. I will use myself as an example, because I’m that egotistical.

I’m a bread fiend. I eat a lot of bread. And yes, I’m perfectly healthy (the great carbohydrate debate is for another article in which I will remove the blinders that Dr. Atkins or South Beach have glued to your face) and would safely say that in my household, a loaf of store-bought bread is gone through in about 2 days. When I’m done stuffing the heel of the loaf in my face, I take the bag, rinse it out quickly in the sink, turn it upside down and inside out and prop it over something in my kitchen, usually a tall coffee thermos or perhaps in your kitchen, the paper towel holder, banana tree, or canister with your kitchen utensils in it. Just hang it up, let it dry out, and put it in the spot in your kitchen where you keep Ziploc sandwich bags and Tupperware.

Here’s why: when I cut half a tomato for my sandwich or half an onion or half of anything, thus leaving  me that annoying kitchen staple called the Leftover, I pop that sucker in your used bread bag. Do the spin and tuck, or, if your OCD tells you to, keep the plastic lock or twist-tie from your newly recycled bread bag and store your leftover food item in your usual spot in your fridge. Yeah, you might feel better about sticking it in a plastic container (which takes up more space) or using a thin, flimsy store-bought Ziploc sandwich bag that seals (oooh), but seriously, you should be using up your leftovers within a couple of days anyway. The bread bag works. I promise.

Most of what we buy comes in a plastic container. The sealed bags of celery hearts? I re-use those for other veggies when my celery is gone. Bread. Grapefruit. Just look at your stash of food next time you go to the kitchen. It’s all plastic.

Plastics means the containers from yogurt, cottage cheese, cream cheese, sour cream, and whatever else grocery stores sell in that nicely shaped, stackable (seriously, stackable. It just gets better and better) container that has a lid that stays on and withstands refrigeration and freezing, and usually microwaving too. Oh, you mean just like store-bought plastic storage containers? YES. Just like that. Except guess what? You paid for it already when it had yogurt in it. So, it’s like OMG FREE.

**Sidenote—I especially like using yogurt containers for storage because I buy cute yogurt. Yes, cute yogurt, like Nancy’s Organic Soy Yogurt, which happens to have pretty flowers and fonts on the package. I’m a shameless aesthetically-bent person. You’ll see. Keep reading.

Easy Step #2: Bulk Up Your Spice Cabinet.

\"SpiceWait, wait, stop rolling your eyes. You saw the word \’bulk\’. It\’s so dirty.

I know this is another ‘duh’ point, but that’s kind of the whole point of this article, is to make you realize that all other not-as-awesome-as-this articles are asking too much of you and making it sound like becoming green is as obstacle-ridden as that show Wipeout. Not the case.

So, what does bulk really mean? Buying too much of something? Spending more money at the grocery store? No and no. What buying bulk should mean is that you’re recognizing your need and usage for an item you like to keep stocked in your household, and that it won’t go bad over time. Don’t buy 30 apples at one time because you’re trying to eat an apple a day to keep the doctor away. Unless you like throwing whole pieces of rotted fruit in your compost (see step 4, please).

My pantry will look different than your pantry, and your pantry will look different than the crazy guy’s down the hall or street (yay), so what you stock is really up to you. The point is, salt and pepper and paprika don’t have to be bought in ugly McCormick containers for 5 dollars. You don’t have to buy a bag of wild rice that comes in a crappy plastic bag (probably not reusable like in step 1).

Almost all co-ops, farmer’s markets, natural food stores and bigger chains like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods (maybe even Wegman’s) have a bulk food section. Usually dedicated to varieties of flours, granolas, and grains, many times they’ll have a section dedicated to exotic and/or everyday spices. Dump some white pepper in a baggie, label it, and do a happy dance at the register when you realize that you just got a year’s supply of the stuff for like 2 dollars, not SEVEN which is what McSpiceRobbers and You’ve-Got-To-Be-Kidding-Me Islands usually charge.

Why Spices in Plain Glass Containers Are Better:

  • Mystery. When your friends come over and are raiding your cabinets, they’ll undoubtedly come across a clear glass container filled with some orangey powder and ask you what it is. This is where you loftily say, “Oh, you know, just turmeric.” Hey, if it’s really taco seasoning, only you and I need to know that. Just make sure you know how to say turmeric before you pull that one on your friends, in case your BFF recently took an Indian cooking class down at the Y.
  • You will become a better cook. When you open your cupboard and your eyes feast on all the pretty colors, even if you’re a rookie and only have like, 6, you’ll relate better to your palate. For a challenge, don’t label anything. Open those jars and take a whiff. Try and guess what herb it is. And hey, if you can’t, don’t sweat it. Do you like it? Do you think it’d be good on those potatoes you’re roasting? Well, shake it on those bad boys. When you figure out what it is, you may realize you made something as fancy as Rosemary Roasted Red Potatoes. Look at you!
  • If you’re super-creative and one of those crafty people, spend some time making your own labels for your spices. I’d probably print out a little picture of Salt and put in on the salt container (wait for it, it’s coming) and then print out a picture of Pepa and put in on the pepper container. Draw a dirty picture for cumin and draw some pretty roses for your Rosemary. Get your kids to do it. Is your teenaged daughter in high school art class and insistently drawing henna on her hands? Have her do it. Lie. Label flaxseeds as peanut sugar and give it to your kids for their cinnamon toast. Or, don’t label anything and be the mad scientist of your spice library.
  • It saves money. I recently spent $1.25 on a glass spice container. I will pay that price once, and then just bring home a little baggie of whatever spice is in it and fill it up when I need to. Here’s a link to a set of 16 for $24 on Amazon. That’s $1.50 each.
  • Glass is better than plastic, don’t you think? Like, for the earth. It feels more substantial, heavier, does a better job of storing your dried spices, and again, is much prettier. And you\’re less likely to thrown it in a landfill any time soon.
  • Your own spice blends can go into these containers. If you cook pretty regularly, you may have a usual concoction of what you put in your soups, salads, or Auntie Sue’s Spicy Black Beans. For example, I have an automated amount of cayenne, salt, pepper, white pepper, thyme, and rosemary that I like to put in my soups. Almost all of my soups get that combination, and then some.

Take a large mixing bowl, pretend your making soup (this sounds ridiculous, but trust me, it works) and have your spices at hand. Shake them in the bowl. In the order you usually would. Note about how much is in the bowl, a teaspoon, a tablespoon? Measure if you need to.

Ok. Do it again. Do it about 7 times. Take a fork and blend them together. Get a piece of paper or a funnel, if you have one, and put the blend of spices you just made into one of your new spice containers. Now you have Green Goddess’ Soup Spice Blend. Pretty awesome. And next time you make soup, remember that (or write it on the label) how much you had in the bowl after the first round of shaking, and add that amount in one swoop. It saves you pulling out all your spices, and this time around, no one will judge you for that finger flick and loud “BAM!” I personally prefer sprinkling it in a circle and trilling “Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo.\”

Easy Step #3: Buy Bulk in Grains, Legumes, and Flours

\"Grains,This step is an almost repeat of step two, but, it makes sense and may be more useful for those of us who eat rice like it’s from the Fountain of Youth.

Just like you can buy pretty glass jars for your spices, you can buy glass jars and canisters for your dried goods. They will more expensive, for sure, so I only pick up a container when I see it on sale, or in good condition from the local thrift store. Because I currently only have two glass jars in my cabinet, I’ve been using…guess. Re-used plastic containers. I’m pretty sure my red lentils are currently hanging out in a Greek Yogurt container and my quinoa is in a margarine container, both with handwritten labels on them, a la me. They stack nicely in my cabinet and pantry, seal perfectly, and make nice impromptu maracas for when my public radio station decides to play Caribbean music while I’m cooking.

If you’re pickier than me and want to use something prettier than used yogurt containers, and display your wild rice like your spice blends, mason jars are the cheap version of buying canisters. Mason jars make their way into your house in a myriad of ways; homemade jams and pickles (if you’re the Martha Stewart of the street), homemade jams and pickles (if you live next to the Martha Stewart of the street and she likes you), or just by going out and buying a 12 pack of those badboys with the lids and doing the bulk-grain deal on the cheap.

Sure, you can buy brown rice (and I seriously hope you’re buying brown, not white) in a little 16 ounce bag from the store, or you could, oh I don’t know, save money by going to the next danged aisle and picking it up there. Very rarely is it more expensive in the bulk section, and many of the bulk grains are WIC approved, for you pregnant people out there.

Another point to buying bulk: it makes you a better cook. Did you know that quinoa, amaranth, and millet all cook faster than brown rice? Like, in 25 minutes or less. And they don’t stick to the bottom of the pan? And they taste amazing? And they’re like, 10 times better for you? Well, now you do. So the next time you think you should serve rice with that dish, don’t. Do a 2:1 ratio of water to one of the above grains and see if you eat it again. You will. I swear I have 3 lonely bags of rice, one Jasmine, one wild, and one long grain brown sitting in my cabinet that I haven’t touched since I went shopping.

Easy Step #4: Start Composting.


Just the word compost used to scare me, not to mention my imagined pictures of rotting banana peels and thoughts of the stink of it. But, since I got over that hurdle, composting has been a surprisingly easy, painless experience. Here’s how I do it:

I keep a small, lidded trashcan under the kitchen sink. About the size you’d use for a bathroom trashcan. You can get this container anywhere and everywhere, so no excuses there. Don’t line it. When you’re done chopping up veggies for that soup, take the ends of it all, the skins, roots, nasty bits, whatever, open that lid, pop them in. There’s all kinds of things you can compost, and there’s a great article in finer detail about composting that can be found here: What To Add To Your Compost

Composting is pretty cool for a few reasons. One, it’s a natural, FREE fertilizer that comes from your kitchen. You know what’s in it. You made it. Two, it really is one of those big ways to go green, but it’s really, really easy. Three, it saves your garbage disposal (or even better, saves clogs for those of us that don’t have a garbage disposal, like me).

If you live in an apartment and don’t have a garden, there’s no reason you can’t compost. If you have no use for compost, post your bag of compost on Craigslist as free fertilizer, tell someone on Freecycle, or take it down to the park and dump it in the bushes. Someone sees you doing it, tell them exactly what you’re doing. You’re living determinedly green in an apartment, and this is your compost. Google neighborhood composting and see if your community has a spot to dump it. Technically, compost is usually created after weeks of accumulating compost, perhaps in a big trashcan or spot in your garden, but if you don’t have the space or time to do that, this is a way you can still compost. I swear half the reason I remember to dump my leftover food in my compost bin is because I don’t want to finger it out of the drain of my kitchen sink.

The smell is not scary, Gremlins do not jump out of your compost bin, and if it makes you take a walk in the park, well, you can thank me later.

Easy Step#5: Nix the Dishwasher.


I recently read an article that argued for using dishwashers as a way to go green. They\’re more efficient because they use less water. Major shenanigans. Unless you\’ve got a two thousand dollar Electrolux beast from the Jetsons, dishwashers are not better for you and your kitchen. It also argued that newer dishwashers do not need the dishes to be pre-rinsed, because that\’s a waste of water and they\’re designed to be capable of removing built-up residue. My parents\’ 3 month old fancy silver dishwasher (of good brand,  if that matters) still requires dishes to be pre-rinsed. Or my mum throws a fit and a couple of dishes on the floor.

Going green is good for the earth, and guess what? You\’re part of the earth. Take a good look at your dishwasher. It\’s this machine sitting in your kitchen that heats up, blows air, and chucks water at dishes. It\’s a mini car wash, for crying out loud. I stopped using a dishwasher about 2 months ago, I couldn\’t be happier. Me, the girl that uses every dish in the kitchen making dinner and dessert, because she didn\’t need to worry about dishes until, I don\’t know, tomorrow. I\’d throw them in the sink with water to cover, and worry about it later. And when the food didn\’t come off easily enough the next morning, I\’d throw them in the dishwasher, you know, to worry about later.

Hand washing your dishes removes procrastination from your kitchen, teaches you to become a more efficient user of time and materials, and will have you sitting down to eat dinner with only the plates and utensils that you\’re eating off of to clean when you\’re done.

You can argue that dishwashers clean your dishes better, because the water is oh-so hot and all, but, really, if you cook chicken and have it raw on plate A and the dishes you eat off on plates B,C, and D, and they\’re all thrown in together and having the same water swirling around them…how clean is that? I feel much more gratified watching myself hand wash my dishes, knowing I cleaned them, rinsed them, dried them and put them away. And once they\’re done, they\’re done. No rewashing. No unloading the dishwasher (how many of us like doing that?) and no loading. No noise during the movie.

It can be done. Chop your vegetables on the cutting board. Dump them in that soup pot. Take the odds and ends off the counter, load them up on your board, walk to your compost bin, dump. Stir your veggies sizzling in olive oil, turn around and wash that cutting board. Done. No time lost. When the leftover soup cools, pour it into that  cottage cheese container and put it in the fridge, and since you used the rest of the bread with dinner, rinse out the bread bag and set to drain before going to bed. Wow. That was so easy.

Hey, maybe I\’m preaching to the choir here. I do know that these are some simple changes I made to my kitchen habits, and that they were easy and have me doing them so habitually, I\’m preparing to grab some $1.50 potted herbs from the produce section at my co-op next week and stick them on the kitchen window sill, just to see how they do. You can\’t learn unless you attempt it, and we learn from our successes and failures. Reusing bread bags makes me feel pretty green and happy, and is a suggestion for you, but only you know what you can do in your kitchen to be more green. The point is, small things count, like every can recycled counts, and every piece of litter counts. Do the above steps in the next 6 weeks and then see what you\’re ready for next. Maybe making your own eco-friendly candles, who knows? Happy Greening!